By Bill Belleville
I. Enter Another World Where waters, once worshipped, are now threatened
I am deep inside a tight, dark cave. Just ahead, my light beam illuminates a chasm that splits off into two smaller tunnels, each boring back into the clay-colored limestone. I am in Rock Springs, enveloped by walls that were sculpted by a powerful water flow over thousands of years. While the clear, sweet water of our aquifer still flows through its deeper tunnels, this upper tunnel is bone dry. And I’m not diving in it, but crawling through its passageways in jeans and boots.
When I look closely at the walls around me, I see the secret language of our ancient Florida geology. Embedded here are the muted marine fossils of sand dollars and sea biscuits and tiny aquatic animals, a clue to the distant past when our peninsula was still accruing from the sea—and a graphic reminder of the water that once sculpted its way through these rocky fissures and bedding planes.
Being inside a spring-cave bereft of the potent liquid force that created it is an experience far beyond intellectual rhetoric. The truth is that the water level inside the underground rocky sponge we know as the Floridan Aquifer—the source of our springs as well as most of our drinking water—is on a marked decline. Some of our springs no longer flow: White and Kissengen, majorsprings and centers of community life in Hamilton and Polk counties, were the first to go dry. More will soon follow. The implications—ecologically, aesthetically, and economically—are brutal, difficult to fully process.
There’s no getting around it: I feel a sense of loss that reaches deep down inside me. After all, this spring is a natural dynamic that was once so grand and mystical it was worshipped by Native Americans as a magic divined by their gods.
A few years ago, I explored a dry first-magnitude spring called Briar Cave in Marion County in much the same way. Briar is a far larger version of Rock, and the enormous flow it took to create it astounded me. Although its caverns stretch under the north Florida terrain for thousands of feet, Briar no longer flows at all. A few miles away from Briar, the outflow of Silver Springs has diminished by half since its heyday as one of Florida’s major tourist attractions in the 1950s. Scientists say if the trend continues, in another 20 years, Silver Springs will no longer flow at all.
Our aquifer—despite spikes from rainy seasons—has been steadily declining in volume since 1935. Scientist John Kunkel Small was one of the first to recognize that energetic draining and pumping during the “boom” of the 1920s was changing the historic water-driven landscape of Florida. Nonetheless, his insightful book, Eden to Sahara: Florida’s Tragedy (1929), was largely ignored. More recently, the Florida Conservation Foundation declared in 1981 that “groundwater is our most neglected and abused renewable resource” and warned there would be “water shortages ahead” for the entire state.
Advocates like the cave-diving explorer and photographer Wes Skiles, who saw the damage first hand, began alerting others that excess pumping as well as pollution from agricultural runoff, septic tanks, and lawn fertilizers had a very real effect on a spring’s health. He emphasized the importance of springsheds, the ground near springs where rainfall seeps into the aquifer to recharge the flow.
The “hidden” dynamic of a spring as it flows through the forever-dark rock under our feet is at once fascinating and challenging. In the winter of 1856, anthropologist Daniel G. Brinton visited Silver Springs and came away in awe at the “perfectly diaphanous” liquid flowing from the earth. Brinton compared “The Silver Spring” to Niagara Falls and the Mississippi River in its natural grandeur. It was, he said, one of the “grand hydrographical features of the North American continent.”
It’s out of sight, out of mind ... like the Grand Canyon with a lid on it. Eric Hutcheson
More recently, the iconic Silver has been described as a veritable “Grand Canyon” because of the enormous underground chambers that funnel its water to the surface. Springs-cave explorer and cartographer Eric Hutcheson, who has mapped over 2,000 feet of passageways there, acknowledges that designation—but with a twist. Most people, says Hutcheson, are unaware of the ecology that nurtures Silver because it is underground and can’t easily be seen. “It’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “It’s like the Grand Canyon with a lid on it.”
In some ways, it may be this “lid” mentality that has kept Floridians from fully acknowledging the dire threats to the springs. Beyond the loss of flow, the most obvious affliction is the presence of filamentous algae. On days when algae blooms murk the once-pure water of the deep Wakulla Springs, the famed glass-bottom boats don’t even bother to run. At Weeki Wachee, another beloved Old Florida attraction, the “mermaids” perform inside an underwater theater where the rocks are coated with slimy green and brown algae that sometimes floats around in large clumps.
The reality is shocking: The singular natural features that have enriched our Florida landscape and culture for thousands of years are imperiled. And the media has taken note: Investigative reports have appeared in Florida newspapers, including the Tampa Bay Times (“Florida’s Vanishing Springs”); the Ocala Star-Banner/Gainesville Sun (“Fragile Springs,” a series that received the 2014 top honor from the Florida Society of News Editors for “Community Leadership”); and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune (“Crisis Mode on Florida Environment”). An online report by students in the University of Florida’s College of Journalism & Communications was headlined, “Fountains of Life: A Look at Florida Springs from Sacred Waters to Green Slime”.
Florida nature photographer John Moran, who has painfully watched the degradation, offers his own frank assessment: “If a foreign power had invaded Florida and done to our springs what we’ve managed to do all by ourselves, we’d be up in arms to defend our precious waters.”
Despite relatively “new” information about the science of our springs, insight into our Floridan Aquifer was divined by early naturalists years ago. After visiting a number of springs here in the 760s, John Bartram figured most were created by rain seeping into the uplands of the central ridge that spines the peninsula. His son, William, correctly guessed there were underground limestone channels linking these springs. Before the term “aquifer” was ever used, Billy” Bartram described these channels as “secret rocky avenues.”
Anthropologist Brinton explained the geology of the aquifer in even greater detail, describing it as “porous Tertiary limestone, formed from 1.6 million to 65 million years ago. And, he elaborated, “the lower strata of the limestone formation of the peninsula have been hollowed out by the action of water into vast subterranean reservoirs, into enormous caverns that intersect and ramify…through whose sunless corridors roll nameless rivers.”
Florida, underpinned with a relatively young geology veined with secret rocky avenues, is blessed with more springs than any other place in the world—even though keeping track of them is an ongoing process. Scientists recorded 300 springs in 1977—a number that has grown to over 700 today. Savvy naturalists say well over 1,000 are scattered across the landscape, even if they all have not been properly measured and named.
Clearly, we are still learning about our springs, including the existence of animals endemic to the respective systems, such as crayfish and snails. (One study of the albino cave crayfish revealed it can live to be 200 years old.) “Managing” a natural phenomenon in which new information is constantly being revealed—this Grand-Canyon-with-a-lid—requires constant vigilance. Allowing excessive groundwater pumping without considering the impacts is not unlike writing checks on a bank account without knowing the balance.
Our springs have been woven into the natural—and cultural—tapestry of Florida since the last Ice Age ended and the invigorated hydrological cycle raised the sea and fueled the rainfall. Early Paleo Indians were already roaming the massive peninsula. But when the springs became abundant and full of life, the culture of the nomadic early Floridians became more complex. Beyond the benefit of cool, potable water, the springs also enhanced the biological diversity of plants and animals in their rivers, creeks, and basins.
With a virtual supermarket at their doorstep, these aborigines had time to grow crops, to invent pottery and create myth, to inscribe the symbols of their beliefs into clay, bone, wood. Indeed, nature and her artesian gifts animated the spiritual cosmos of these early Floridians. Those living around Silver Springs believed their “Water Gods” existed inside the luminous waters there, and did all they could to protect them from the earliest Spanish explorers.
When European colonists begin arriving, they often lived atop the same shell mounds, taking advantage of high-and-dry land in an otherwise soggy, pre-dredged peninsula. Like Florida’s Native Americans, they used the spring runs and rivers as aquatic highways, eventually building missions and villages around them. Soon, artists learning of the singular light and landscape of the place traveled to Florida to inscribe their own images, just as the Native Americans had before them.
Inside the dry cave of Rock Springs, I can’t help but reflect on this. As I do, I think of the pure wonder and joy Bartram felt on first seeing our springs. In 1791, he wrote they were “the blue ether of another world…a crystal flood…almost as transparent as the air we breathe.”
Our springs were clearly mystical, akin to a natural miracle. Bartram’s profound sense of awe wasn’t lost on the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who was inspired by the naturalist’s descriptions to write in his poem “Kubla Khan”: here “Alph the Sacred River ran/Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea.”
Undoubtedly our springs are a rich natural legacy that has blessed Florida and its people over time—one of aesthetics and mysticism, sustenance and light. Certainly, this is a vital force that deserves to be honored as fully as any sacred gift.
II. Bowls of liquid light
Florida has more freshwater springs
than any other place in the world.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas, revered Florida environmentalist, described
them this way in her 1967 book, Florida: The Long Frontier
[Florida] burst and bubbled in multitudes of clear springs…Basins of rock and sand held them like bowls of liquid light. Fresh water rises and falls mysteriously in grassy or rocky sinkholes. The springs spill over into swamps and rivers; the Wakulla from the great Wakulla Springs south of Tallahassee, the Oklawaha that flows into the St. Johns from the great clear boiling basin of Silver Springs. The Aucilla, the Steinhatchee, the north-flowing Withlachoochee all flow westward from spring-fed swamps.
Most strange and beautiful of all, the seeping water has worked grottoes and hidden caverns in the limestone, like those at Marianna, stained soft rose color by the constant dripping of fresh water through red surface soil. It makes long hanging stalactites and upward-growing spurs and fantastic spines of stalagmites among the basins and runlets in a constant dripping, dropping, of pure, sterile water. In a sudden flash of light all this rock and water glitters in rose and crystal in the lifeless darkness of the earth.
The springs of fresh water have made more than three thousand lakes and ponds, blue and crystal, innumerable mirrors flashing everywhere to the sky, down all the central ridge of Florida.
This map shows the locations of only a fraction of Florida’s more than 700 springs.
The darker colors illustrate “springsheds,” upland areas where rainfall seeps through the ground and recharges the flow of water in springs.
III. The Springs Video
“The Springs: Jewels of Florida” is an educational documentary about the Florida Springs. Production style modeled after BBC’s Planet Earth series. It is the result of traveling to 8 springs throughout North Central Florida and hours of research. “The Springs: Jewels of Florida” premiered on May 9, 2013.
thinkFlorida.org extends a special thank you to John Moran and the Springs Eternal Project for use of their beautiful photographs, and to Bill Belleville for writing this piece. Bill Belleville is an award-winning author & documentary filmmaker who specializes in nature and “sense of place.” For more information about his work, please visit his Authors Guild website at BillBelleville.com.